As part of our 20th birthday celebrations, we are sharing 20 interviews with leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Our first #Global20 interview is with Lady Edwina Grosvenor.

Lady Edwina Grosvenor is an English philanthropist and prison reformer. Also known as the Prison Philanthropist. She is the founder and trustee of the charity The Clink, and founder of the charity One Small Thing. She shares with Ben Morton Wright what drives her as a philanthropist and what lessons we can learn, from her experience and journey with philanthropy.

Full Transcript: 

Ben Morton Wright 0:00
Global philanthropic is 20 years this year. And to celebrate that we’ve decided to undertake 20 interviews with thought leaders and and opinion leaders in philanthropy. And I’m absolutely delighted that the first of these interviews is with Lady Edwina Grosvenor, and very pleased to join us, Edwina, if I may. And Edwina has been a tremendous lead in the area of women’s prisons, and philanthropy and absolute inspiration, in terms of how you do philanthropy. So we’re going to hear a little bit more about that. But welcome, Edwina.

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 0:33
Thank you for having me.

Ben Morton Wright 0:35
Not at all. I’m also extremely pleased that you very kindly agreed to become our founding member of our advisory board, which is a new initiative where we’re bringing together a key philanthropist to help other philanthropists. So I’m absolutely pleased and delighted to announce that and I couldn’t think of a better person to start that advisory board. So thank you very much for agreeing to be part of that. We look forward to talking more.

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 0:57
Still feel like that in a year’s time?

Ben Morton Wright 1:02
I’m sure we will. So in terms of your philanthropic journey, maybe you could take us back. I mean, obviously, you are born into a very privileged situation, if I might say, and I’m sure you became quite aware of that. But maybe you could take us back with that journey of how you began to be aware of that and begin to think about philanthropy, maybe you could share that with us be very helpful.

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 1:24
Yeah, so I grew up at Eaton Hall, my childhood home up in the northwest of England, in Chester, with my siblings. And from a really early age, actually, both my parents, I was at a co Ed day school. So every evening, we came home and sort of had dinner with either both parents or just my mother. So there was lots of discussions that went on, around the dinner table, as you know, from a really young age. And Mum was a patron of various charities, my father was patron of hundreds of charities it seemed. And really, it was through talking to them about local things that were going on, you know, I knew about the local areas of deprivation, from quite a young age through conversations. Mom was involved in a local charity that I ended up doing my work experience at.

So I was 15 years old. And I went off to this charity, which really was about keeping mothers together with their children was the last ditch attempt to keep mothers and children together. Because actually, if they didn’t do well, on this program, then the social services were going to come and would have to remove the children. That had a huge, huge impact on me, because I was going along age 15, they knew the children knew who I was, because they knew my mother was the patron. It was slightly terrifying, in the sense that they would say some of the children would say things like to have blue blood. And, you know, it’s just terrifying in the sense that you knew you were different, which I think quite frankly, is always good for children to feel, because that’s how you learn empathy and the shoes on the other foot.

And, you know, the mothers had had had awful backstories there was clearly sort of a sense of violence in the sense that their partners had been violent towards them, the children talks about their fathers being in prison, the fathers weren’t really around, but they were either dead in prison or, you know, or drug dealers or, you know, it was really, really hard hitting, and I only did a week there as work experience. But I remember so vividly the feeling of walking towards the door on the first day, my heart beating. And I remember the conversations that I had with some of the children that broke my heart, even though I was a child myself. And I remember feeling so sorry for a lot of these women. These adult women, even though I was I think it was at such an impressionable age at 15 on you, and you sort of if you’re in the wrong peer group, you can go the wrong way. So I think people say, Gosh, that was young to be dropped into something like that, but I don’t think it was too young. And I think it depends on the type of child you are. And if you’re ready to do something like that, and you show willingness, I think parents should therefore encourage.

And actually a little bit younger than that. So I think I was about 12 or 13. When both my parents decided to take my older sister and I to meet two heroin users on hope streets in Liverpool. There was a drug rehabilitation clinic there. And I think they were really worried that as we grew up, we turned to drugs and snort our inheritances up our noses. And, you know, they knew that they were not the right people to educate us about drugs, which was quite wise. Because children generally don’t really listen to their parents about things like that. Though they thought it would be much more productive to take us to the people who really knew what they were talking about.

And that hour of my life, along with that week when I was 15, was just, you know, totally unbelievable. It was like being a football fan. And I don’t know, meeting David Beckham or whoever you’re, for me, it was like, I’m able to talk to these people. This is amazing. They’re willing to share with me, their trials and tribulations and, and it just was, it was amazing. And I don’t know whether it was just that hour. But I went through my teenage years, without turning to drugs without trying drugs. And I have not snorted my inheritance up my nose. So it’s my vein. So something went right.

Ben Morton Wright 5:52
Brilliant. So clearly, your parents are hugely influential. And obviously, your father did incredible work, including the DNRC, which I was honored enough to be involved in the early stages. And that was a phenomenal piece of philanthropy, but it was also highly strategic. And we might talk a little bit about your work in Hope Street and prison reform, in particular, because I think it’s not dissimilar. I think I’ve said this before in terms of your approach, and perhaps is that influence of how you do philanthropy? I mean, was that talked about at the time around the dinner table? Or was it very much you kind of listen and learn on experience?

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 6:24
Not really, there was never sort of talk of a strategy or anything like that. So, um, what I’d say is So, you know, my father’s philanthropy was, and this actually touches on this sort of gender aspect. So I think of philanthropy as well, my father’s philanthropy, because he was the Duke, he was the visible one was, was strategic, and it was visible. And it was talked about, and it’s written about my mother’s philanthropy, however, as is so often the way with women, was huge and had had a very big effect on me, but it was more invisible. And it was less talked about, and it wasn’t written about in the papers. And so that’s just a reflection, really. And I think, as a young girl, who grew up to be obviously the female philanthropist that I am, it was my mother, you know, you look to your mother, when you’re really that’s not to sort of certainly do down anything that my father did. But I think it’s just an interesting reflection of young people growing up to become a philanthropist, and are they a boy or a girl? And who do they who do they look to? To follow? So yeah, it was really more a case of be aware of what you have. They never said things like, it is a responsibility, and you must do something about it. They were never like that, I think it was just a case of making us conscious of who we were, what we had. And that actually, one nice path in life is to maybe think about giving it away.

Ben Morton Wright 7:59
So what’s your advice to others, and I’m very pleased through your, through your work, as an advisor, you’re going to help I know, share your knowledge around this, but with other philanthropists in a similar position that maybe are in that privileged position. And I just wondered what your what your thoughts are in terms of sort of key words of advice. If you’re starting that journey, and you’re relatively young, you’re realizing that you have you know, that all these issues are beginning to present themselves? What’s your thinking around that? What was your advice would be,

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 8:30
I think it’s really important to understand what you have, you need to understand the context within which you sit. And that’s something I really grappled with, because I’m not very financially literate. And, you know, I like to just get on and do, and that’s all sort of there. And so, for me, it was really about understanding what I had, understanding what I wanted to give, what proportion I wanted to give, to talk to people who really understand money, trusted people who understand that landscape and can help you work out what it is you want to do.

So I’m a big fan of pen and paper. In fact, I’m sort of sitting here with a pen and paper in front of me now because I put everything down on a piece of paper. And, and have fun with it. I think that’s really important. I decided to make a career out of being a philanthropist, you know, I the position that I’m in means I don’t need to go out and get a job. I don’t need a paid job. But I knew I wanted a career and I knew I wanted to be a professional and an expert in something. So that has come through my criminal justice work. But I do see my career as a philanthropist, actually. And that’s why I call myself a prison philanthropist because it’s about identity.

And I think often growing up as a young, wealthy person, you can have a sort of a loss of identity and anyone I have a loss of identity. And I think when you’re in your early 20s, I came out of university. And I was like, great, what now, I’ve got a degree in criminology, but I don’t really know what my plan is, you know, often things are mapped out for the boys. And there’s such, I mean, I’m not saying that I would want that for myself. So it’s not like, Oh, get the violin out. But there’s often a very, very rigid mapped out plan for the eldest boy in particular. But then you need to be in charge of your own destiny. And that doesn’t just happen, you need to work at it. And you need to sit down with your loved ones, your friends, it can also be challenging, because you can’t just talk to your friend from down the road who maybe isn’t wealthy, because that could be seen to be really insensitive. So you just need to spend a little bit of time I think, on working out who you can talk to who the appropriate people are, who has who has your best interests at heart.

Work out how much money you have, what proportion you want to give away. And then please remember to have fun with it. Because it is a great and wonderful gift. To be able to give money away it really is.

Ben Morton Wright 11:14
As often the thing we try and repeat about should be the most fun you ever have is philanthropy. It sounds slightly weird, given the sorts of causes that you might be supporting. But it really should make you feel very, very good. And that’s part of the joy of it. I just moving on to the Hope Street project. And one small thing. And originally The Clink actually, maybe you could just tell us that a little bit, maybe a bit of an advertisement as well about what you’re doing. Because I think it’s phenomenal. I know it’s due to open quite soon. So maybe you could just tell us that journey and why you privatized women’s prisons as the thing that you really want to focus on. Tell us about your journey with that.

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 11:50
So then this does come back to probably my father’s philanthropy in the sense that with his hospital for wounded veterans, you know, that was strategic, and he sort of wanted to change a system. I very much want to change a system. The criminal justice system is huge, and is made up of lots of different parts, like the probation system, the police service, you know, it goes on and on and on. But the prison system sits within that. And then within the prison system, you have the men, the women, the children, and it’s the female prison system that I obviously relate to as a woman. And it’s an it’s the part of a system that I understand really, really well and feel very passionately about. That system is ripe for change, as is the male system as is the youth system. But I can only do one thing at a time. And I believe that I can help to change that system for the better for all sorts of reasons that we probably won’t have time to go into here.

So really with my philanthropy after 22 years of working with the prison’s having advised the government having worked in Parliament’s having given a lot, having having set up different charities having sat on boards of different charities, I thought, I can’t just go out round like a one legged duck. I was heading towards the end of my 30s. I’m now 40. And I thought what do I want the next few decades my philanthropy to look like. And I thought it has to be the system change. And I will be relentless about that. So hope st, the name of the project that you refer to and Hampshire, because it’s a cross county project sits under the umbrella of One Small Thing, which is the name of my organization that I set up. And it’s one small thing is set up to sort of address trauma, and to address trauma through a gender lens within prisons and within the criminal justice system.

So hope streets has been set up on a macro level, it’s about turning off the tap at a county level of women leaving the county to go to prison. So in England and Wales, we have a problem where we send women to prison for their own safety. Often, women can be sent to prison on remand, and can lose their children and can then be found innocent. The majority of women over 80% in non violent crimes, and the vast majority are in for very, very short sentences. A lot of women should get community sentences, but you can’t get a community sentence which would mean you could stay with your children. Women can’t get community sentences if they’re homeless, which many of them are. They can’t get community sentences if the PERP if there’s a perpetrator in the community. So if there’s a violent male, or an abusive man around like a pimp, like a gang Lord, like an abusive boyfriend or husband, the community doesn’t represent a particularly safe place for women.

So in all of that, and I’m trying to make it simple in all of that what It means this, you need the safe thought through thing to be built in the community, so that the police so that the probation, so the judiciary, and the magistrates can say, Oh, actually, now I can give this woman her community sentence, because I know she can remain with her children. And she can do it somewhere safely, where she can still be under the auspices of the probation service, so they can make sure that she is doing the things that she is required to do by the courts. So I hope that makes sense.

Ben Morton Wright 15:37
I mean, it’s I, you know, having got to know the project, and I just think is absolutely inspirational, I think it’s brilliant. And I think you know, it also the it sounds like it’s sort of proof of concept as well that if you can, and I know you’ve got a university, monitoring that and evaluating it. So as this goes on, if it can be proved that this intervention works, then it could actually roll out in a very significant way and affect 1000s of people’s lives. So I think it’s really exciting.

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 16:04
So it’s designed to be replicable and scalable. And the last point I’d make on Hope Street as a philanthropist, is that I do get bored of plugging gaps as a philanthropist if nothing changing. So I also believe that if I’m going to redesign one part of the justice system, we need to create a model that washes its face. So yes, I’m going to other philanthropists that minute, saying we need to raise the money to do this. But it is absolutely my mission to make sure that hope streets washes its face, and that we can fund it through local commissioning groups.

Ben Morton Wright 16:39
Absolutely, sustainability again is another very strategic kind of move. So a small advert for those out there that want to get involved with this, I’m sure your CEO and one small thing and that Hope Street project would love to hear from him because I know you’re very into partnership, and you put a considerable amount of money philanthropically already, but I know, the part of the secret here is also to get others to join you. So that’s there are there’s the advert for you. I’ve done it on your behalf. It just did a phenomenal, phenomenal projects, I think is absolutely outstanding. Is there anything else in terms of your thinking around what philanthropy could do in the world? I mean, the world’s changed a lot. We’ve had a lot of stress in the world recently, for obvious reasons. I mean, how important is, is being a philanthropist and others turning to philanthropy, how important is this area of work? You’ve described yourself as a philanthropist quite rightly, you know, how important is it others follow in your, in your with your leadership?

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 17:34
Well, what I would say is, it’s very personal. So I it’s not like I speak on behalf of other philanthropists. And I certainly would never be so insensitive to tell others what to do with their money. For me, my philanthropy started abroad in Nepal, because I started working in the Nepalese prison system when I was 18. And so my philosophy started abroad. And then as I grew older, and started looking more carefully around my own doorstep, and as I got very entrenched in the English prison system, my philanthropy has come back closer and closer and closer to home. So now I’m in Hampshire, and I have hope streets surrounding me, which feels really right. It’s not to say that I don’t give to things abroad. And it’s not to say that I won’t in the future. But for now, sounds really corny doesn’t make charity starts at home. We’ve all heard that one before. I think there’s really something in that.

Depending on how much you have to give away, people might want to think about a proportion going abroad, and then a proportion being near their home. So I think you raise a good point, I think when you’re sitting down with your pen and paper, and when you’re making your plan and just sketching everything out. And geography is really important. I’ve often given to Nepal, and often still give to Nepal, just because I love Nepal, and I love the Himalayas. So I’m always drawn to drawn to that area of the world. Whereas some people, it’s Africa, some people it’s it’s other other areas. But I would put that yeah, into the mix of thinking about when you’re planning

Ben Morton Wright 19:19
really, really helpful and answer any other wise words or thoughts of the day that you’d like to look at, as we sort of close this 20 minutes, which has been a real journey and a fantastic insight. By the way. Thank you for being so open. And sharing that I think it’ll be a real inspiration to others. But are there any other thoughts you’d like to leave us with in this whole area?

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 19:37
Yeah. just one. What I learned from working at my family foundation, Westminster foundation is that the broader you go, the less impact you have, a generalization maybe. So I decided I sort of my philanthropic journey just got narrower and narrower and narrower and narrower. And it came down to prisons and It’s now sort of gone slightly wider again, because it’s sort of the criminal justice system, which as I said, it’s quite big. But don’t be scared to focus, right down onto a single issue. Because I think then you can really learn you can immerse yourself in it, you can become an expert in it. And I think that then helps with the identity piece. It certainly did for me.

Ben Morton Wright 20:21
Really, really interesting. Thank you very much again for the sharing with that. And that’s a great last thought. And we’ll wrap things up now. Thank you so much again. It’s been an absolutely fascinating insight. Thank you very much.

Lady Edwina Grosvenor 20:34
Thanks for having me.